Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Game of Phones

Year: 2016
Director: Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman
Cast: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Before I went to see Nerve, I checked to see what some of my favorite reviewers said about it. Seeing how they’re all adult men, it turns out that none of them have actually seen it, making me the sole voice in the teenybopper darkness. I do it all for you.

Although my tolerance is waning for YA adaptations, especially single shot throwaways attempting to surf on the wake of Hunger Games, there was something that drew me to Nerve: directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. the Catfish documentarians who co-directed Paranormal Activity 3 and 4. Although I’m wobbly on one of those movies and actively hate the other, I love when low budget horror directors are given a chance to helm a big Hollywood feature, especially when it’s in such a random genre. And I don’t know what it says about them, but Nerve is definitely their best work.

Although, with Paranormal Activity 4 on your CV, a Transformers movie would count as your best work.

In Nerve, timid teen Vee (Emma Roberts) is fed up with her life. She’s sick of her domineering cheerleader best friend Sydney (Emily Meade) – yeah, this is one of those movies where a girl who looks like Emma Roberts is supposed to be nerdy and undesirable – an her overprotective mom (Juliette Lewis) who hasn’t been the same since her older brother died. Trying to overcome her fear of taking risks, she signs up for Nerve, a user-generated dare game where she can win money for filming herself doing wild stunts like kissing strangers or sneaking into expensive stores. This will help her both get out of her shell and earn enough to go to her dream college.

Through the game she meets Ian (Dave Franco), another player who she teams up with, helping her gain watchers and rise up the charts. However, the further she gets, the more dangerous her dares become, and she begins to discover there’s a sick truth behind the game and those who participate in it.

It’s basically Pokémon Go with more nudity and violence.

Nerve is definitely a teen movie, no two ways about it. Anyone who’s been on this planet for more than a decade and a half will scoff at the hyperbolic drama and the best friend’s unrequited love, but it’s the same crap we all fell for back in the day. If that stuff isn’t for you, then it’s not for you, but let me tell you this: I have no idea where Joost and Schulman are pulling this kind of visual artistry from, but it’s not only the most kinetic and exciting movie of their career, it might just be the most aesthetically stunning YA movie since Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Now, I’m a sucker for a movie with a bold color scheme and a movie with unique integration of modern technology, but Nerve does both here in a way that manages to stay true to the inscrutable media whims of modern teen culture while remaining an enticing work of cinema. A lot of the slick cinematography and self-consciously hip soundtrack feels like they cracked open MTV and sprinkled it on top of everything, but that kind of pandering is a staple of these types of movies (“Don’t You (Forget About Me)” might be regarded as a classic, but there’s no denying it was birthed from that very same impulse) and I wouldn’t be rid of it for the world.

Clearly, I’ve gotten myself a little riled up so let me cut to the chase. Nerve’s production design (courtesy of Chris Trujillo of f**king Stranger Things) is a splendid treat, full of lavish, exuberantly excessive neon that turns the world into a bright, candy-colored technological wonderland which perfectly suits the thrumming synth score. The visual style complements this well, diving through, around, and into phone and computer screens and using digital flags to track players’ progress around the city, turning the act of using technology into something interactive and stimulating. Nerve’s world is just ours, but turned up to 11, which is perfect for its slightly fantastical premise.

ie. That someone could be playing a game on their phone all night and not run out of battery.

Nerve actually has a solid theme as well, about how online anonymity can turn people into monsters. It’s a little heavy-handed, but it’s a very relevant topic in modern teen culture that actually wasn’t present in the source novel at all (or so I’ve been told). This means that the filmmakers made a set of very conscious choices while adapting the 2012 book into a current text. This isn’t just an audiobook with visuals, it’s a unique piece of work that people actually put thought into making.

And if we set aside that heavy Brennan-y analysis, Nerve is still a fun thrill ride. With snappy dialogue, surprisingly tense action, and a mostly game cast (first time performer/white rapper Machine Gun Kelly is camp as all Hell), it’s a bubblegum splash of a story.

Of course, the third act is idiotic drivel, but at least they made it this far. When the story gets bogged down in Darknet technobabble, it loses a lot of its momentum. But if a gymnast doesn’t stick the landing, that doesn’t mean they didn’t still give a terrific, nail-biting performance. Nerve isn’t an all-out classic of teen cinema, but it’s a delightful breath of fresh air in an unremittingly dour summer.

TL;DR: Nerve is an exciting, colorful, cotton candy playground.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 947

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